Outdoor Belaying

Belaying is belaying, right? Well, not really. Belaying indoors is always the same: You stand on the floor and belay either a lead or a toprope. Belaying outdoors is not so simple. You may be positioned below the climber, maybe above; the ground may be flat, sloping, or rocky, or you may be hanging off the belay; you may or may not need to be anchored; reaching the belay anchor may be as straightforward as walking up to the base of the route (as in a gym) or require a rappel or a belay from above.

Belaying outdoors involves making decisions about the anchor, the position of the belayer, and the belay technique. Being able to safely set up belays in a wide range of outdoor situations requires an understanding of the system options, the technical proficiency to set up correctly the chosen system, and the maturity to know your limits. Learn the systems, pick the best option for the situation, but do not experiment-if you move out of your comfort zone, you may put yourself and others at risk.

There is common ground between belaying indoors and outdoors. The actions of belaying (paying rope out, taking rope in, catching falls, lowering climbers) and the tools (plates, tubes, auto-locking devices, and the Munter hitch) are all the same. The difference is in the application of the actions and the tools.

The CATCH principles: It is imperative when climbing outdoors that the belayer is prepared to catch a fall. Unlike in the perfect environment of the gym, climbing outdoors has too many variables to allow for casual belaying. To help ensure safety, adhere to the following CATCH principles:

C – Be sure the system is closed by having the belayer tie into the rope.

A – Align the belayer between the anchor and the anticipated direction of force.

T – Have the belayer positioned tight to the belay anchor.

C – Be sure the communication is clear between the climber and the belayer.

H – Be sure the belayer’s brake hand is on the rope and he or she can belay safely.

Closed Closing the system is fundamental in climbing-we do it when we back-buckle our harness and tie a keeper knot in our figure eight knot-and is very important in belaying. Climbers are injured each year when their belayer drops them because the end of the rope passes completely through the belay device. The simplest way to close the system is just to have the belayer tie the end of his or her rope to the harness-the belayer has to tie in to climb the route anyway. If the belayer is not planning to climb the route, then he or she can close the system by tying a figure eight on a bight below the belay device.

Aligned Whenever possible the belayer should be clipped into an anchor on the ground, either with the climbing rope or with slings girth-hitched to the harness. After clipping in, the belayer should determine the most likely direction he or she will be pulled if the leader falls, and align with it. A falling leader will create a straight line between the first piece of protection and the anchor, and the belayer, if not aligned with that, can be pulled out of position.

Tight Just being in line between the anchor and the anticipated direction of force is not enough. The belayer must also be positioned tight to the belay anchor; if not, he or she risks being pulled until positioned tight and could lose control.

Communication Before leaving the ground, the climber must communicate clearly with the belayer about what is going to happen. Will the leader be lowered after clipping the top anchors? Will the leader rappel? In the first situation, the belayer must keep the leader on belay; in the second, the belayer will take the leader off belay while he or she rigs the rappel. If the leader expects to be lowered and the belayer expects him or her to rappel, there could he fatal consequences. Get our communication clear.

Hand It seems like such a simple thing: Feed rope in and take rope out without letting go of the brake hand. It is amazing how frequently climbers-especially novices-fail to do this correctly. Before the climber leaves the ground, be absolutely sure that the belayer can and will keep the belay in effect until the climb is over. An extra 10 minutes on the ground practicing could save the climber’s life.